The Power of Dumb Ideas II

Want to hit the next big thing? Don’t bother. Just build stuff that works and creates value!

Recently I wrote about some of the Really Big Cool Commercial Things people tried to do on the Internet when it was still kind of a fad. These Big Things tended not to work out either because they didn’t make sense to begin with, or because their perpetrators could never settle for something that actually worked and delivered value.

I think (and said then) that this is probably because people often enter into business for reasons other than doing stuff that works and delivers value. If, on the other hand, you *cough* do stuff that works and delivers value it’s a lot more likely your business will do well. Notably, it doesn’t have to have an amazing idea behind it.

My favorite example of this is those nifty little PC-based cash registers. I’m a bit out of date on who has what these days, but back in the early and middle 1990s it seemed like one out of four mall stores had something from Systems for Today’s Retailer, which went by STR most of the time when I worked there.

STR started a little like this. Scott and Chuck what I call a dumb idea: to mimic those $10,000 intelligent cash registers that know how much everything costs, calculate discounts, print time cards, keep inventory up to date, and send sales data back to the corporate offices. Except they would do it for around $3,000 on an industry-standard PC.

That’s all. That was the big idea.

I’m sorry, there just isn’t very much to it.

It hit big. Everyone wanted this. They made their first sale to a small chain of jewelry stores headquartered in California. Then there were a couple of local Ohio customers. A place that sold swimming pool supplies, stuff like that. There was a chain of pet supply stores. And a nascent chain of computer superstores. None of these were gigantic wins, but they were mostly solid customers who paid a fair price for a good product.

Hey, there were a lot of problems with the software. By the time I showed up as the fifth employee, Scott’s office contained a clear box of 5.25″ floppy diskettes, generally three for the uniquely copied source code for each client’s custom applications. “Source control” was pulling things out of the box and putting them back.

What we considered the “base” application was about 160,000 lines of Clipper code, largely cut and paste from previous versions. In fact, one of my first really big refactorings involved merging eleven slightly different versions of the main item entry function into one, with just a little branching to distinguish the eleven kinds of transactions. It wasn’t the best code base to work with.

But it didn’t matter, not then, not really.

The key thing Scott and Chuck did, and this was seriously brilliant, was to figure out what people wanted to pay money for and making it work well enough to use. (Well, that and hiring me.) In a few years, STR had become fairly stable and rather profitable. We had matching 401(k) plans and good health insurance. It was a good place to work, and the software itself got quite a bit better as we improved our code and project management practices.

I started working with those guys almost twenty years ago now, and I still keep thinking… wow, it’s just a cash register with a regular computer in it. That’s all.

What’s the difference between a Great Idea and a Great Business?

One is fun to think about. The other is a lot of hard work.

And what do you know, tonight begins Startup Weekend Cleveland. In about five hours, I’m going to join about seventy other business and technical people to talk about ideas, pick a subset that the group will develop into products, and personally contribute to one of those. Which ones will be most successful? I’m betting on the ideas that make people say “I need that!” not “Oh cool!” In other words, the stuff that works and creates value.

The Saga of Lou

Don’t dismiss the weirdest person in the department. The weird guy may know something you don’t.

Sometimes projects are made to suck because people are cussed and they just won’t listen.

There was this time in late 1988. It was my first job out of college, with my freshly minted B.A. in Mathematics (!) and a lot of enthusiasm. It was a little financial services company just off East 9th and Euclid.

One of the first things they asked me to do was… kind of a drudge job. See, there was this database on our IBM System/38 mini. It had a file that included (among a lot of other fields) customer identifying information, balance due, and last activity date.

Continue reading “The Saga of Lou”

Code Farming: Sprouting Some Methods

You probably can’t impose unit testing on a whole system all at once. But you probably can increase the portion of the code under test a little bit at a time. When you’re busy but need to make small changes, consider Sprout Method (59).

I am trying, with only partial success, to apply what I’ve learned in Working Effectively With Legacy Code by Michael C. Feathers.

Feathers is a huge advocate of test-driven development. He puts it out there on page xvi: “Code without tests is bad code.” He defines “legacy code” as, strictly speaking, any code that isn’t already under unit tests. At first it struck me as a funny definition, because obviously lots of code is written today–even by me–without unit tests, and how can it be right to refer to software nobody’s even thought of yet as “legacy”? But for purposes of the book it works.

Continue reading “Code Farming: Sprouting Some Methods”

On dev software upgrades–when, why, how?

When do you buy and install development software upgrades? I put them off until there is some concrete benefit. Is that so wrong?

A few months ago, a client had made a few changes in some nifty little WinForms application I’d written for them and then wanted me to pick it up again from there.

I know that sounds like a nightmare, but the person who did the changes is really sharp, and he definitely improved on my work. So it wasn’t like I had to go and fix all the problems he introduced. There weren’t any.

No, I’m writing this because of a different complication.

Continue reading “On dev software upgrades–when, why, how?”

When you're stuck

It happens a lot, especially when working on legacy code, that you can’t figure out a “business logic” algorithm that isn’t already well documented. Sure, it’s in the code, but so are a million other things, and you can’t eyeball the part that does all the calculation. The client is asking for a change or a fix and you’re not sure where to start.
That’s when I think you can do three things at once: improve the overall structure, impose some unit testing, and solve the problem you were asked to. Refactoring does all of these. Continue reading “When you're stuck”

The other essential Agile ingredient

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

–the “litany against fear” from the science fiction novel Dune

Yesterday I got a call from a prospective client whose Project Does Not Yet Suck, but it’s starting to make little slurping noises.

The situation calls for someone who is “aggressive without being arrogant” and “can handle pressure” while “getting stuff done.” And I thought hey, maybe this project isn’t necessarily right for me for some other reasons… but she did catch the spirit of what I talked about a couple weeks ago.

See here. Humility is not contradicted by effectiveness. It just isn’t. They’re different things. Continue reading “The other essential Agile ingredient”

Programmer optimism, and the "Death March"

Don’t want Death March projects? Then don’t commit your development teams to fixed tasks and fixed deadlines with vague inputs.

I’m tired of hearing lines like “programmers are such optimists,” said in a disparaging way, by people who should know better. It’s a common refrain in corporate offices, usually when a software project is running late. Often the blame is placed on the programmers who are working for free on nights and weekends to make stuff work.

The project isn’t late because developers are braggarts. It’s because management has assigned them too much to do, which, as Peter Kretzman warns is the best way to not get what you want from your I.T. organization.

The “optimist” accusation is a cheap shot, and here’s why.

Continue reading “Programmer optimism, and the "Death March"”

Programming with Access? Know this about column names

Does your Access database have sketchy column names with weird characters in them? Surround them with bracket characters so SQL will work.

Because it’s the beginning of the week, I’m again presenting more about programming .NET with an Access database.

Last week, I offered help with a confusing syntax error. Before that, I demonstrated the unique way Access handles JOIN. Today I have a tip on addressing poorly named columns in your code. Continue reading “Programming with Access? Know this about column names”